Now the bright morning-star, day's harbinger,
Comes dancing from the east, and leads with her
The flowery May, who from her green lap throws
The yellow cowslip and the pale primrose.
Hail, bounteous May, that dost inspire
Mirth and youth and warm desire!
Woods and groves are of thy dressing,
Hill and dale doth boast thy blessing.
Thus we salute thee with our early song,
And welcome thee, and wish thee long.
John Milton, Song: On a May Morning, 1632
Throughout most, if not all, of Europe, from ancient times, this day has been greeted with celebration and mirth in honor of the renewed fertility of the earth and its creatures. In northern Europe, this was considered the first day of summer, and mock battles between the young Lord Summer and Old Man Winter were held, with (of course) young Summer winning.
The most notable custom of the day was 'bringing in the May'. As described by John Brand: "It was anciently the custom for all ranks of people to go out a-Maying early on the first of May. Bourne tells us that in his time, in the villages in the North of England, the juvenile part of both sexes were wont to rise a little after midnight on the morning of that day, and walk to some neighbouring wood, accompanied with music and the blowing of horns, where they broke down branches from the trees and adorned them with nosegays and crowns of flowers. This done, they returned homewards with their booty about the time of sunrise, and made their doors and windows triumph in the flowery spoil." John Brand, Observations on the Popular Antiquities of Great Britain, 1849, p. 212 [Available on Google Books]
From his own observations of the royal court, the author (arguably Chaucer) of "The Court of Love" wrote:
"... 'Welcome this May season' quoth he;
'And honor to the Lord of Love must be,
That hath this feast so solemn and so high'...
"And forth went all the court, both most and least,
To fetch the floures fresh and branch and bloom;
And namely hawthorn brought both page and groom,
With freshe garlands party blue and white,
And then rejoiced in their great delight."
French courtiers celebrating the May festivities were pictured by the Limbourg brothers in the Tres Riches Heures (above).
Of course, there are always the gloomy Gus's who find celebrations, whether pagan or popish, to be abominations; Stubbs, in his Anatomie of Abuses (1585) warned against the practice of bringing in the May: "...they go some to the woods and groves, some to the hills and mountains, some to one place, some to another, where they spend all the night in pastimes, and in the morning they return, bringing with them birch, boughs, and branches of trees to deck their assemblies withall. I have heard it credibly reported... by men of great gravity, credit, and reputation, that of forty, threescore, or a hundred maids going to the wood over-night, there have scarcely the third part of them returned home again undefiled."
[Well, at least we know what the 'pastimes' were.]
So, gather in the May, fill your house with flowers (Lilies-of-the-Valley are especially lucky), and celebrate with a MAY WINE BOWL.
You will need a large glass jar with a lid, or a large bowl with a cover, for this.
Chill 3 bottles of white wine, such as Rhine or Moselle, and 1 bottle of champagne.
Maiwein comes from Germany. Woodruff, the herb which gives the 'Maibowle' its distinctive taste, may be hard to find, unless your herb garden is well forward, or you have been growing herbs inside in a window box. Dried woodruff may be used (some recipes prefer it), and if you do, put it in a teabag or cheesecloth bag so that it can be removed easily. The small amount used here is not harmful; however, those afraid that any contact with the herb may have undesirable consequences are advised to leave it out. The punch won't have the taste of a real Maibowle, but considering the rest of the ingredients, I don't think anyone will notice.
In a large glass jar or bowl, combine 3 sprigs of fresh woodruff (or 1 ounce dried, in a bag), 1/2 cup of very fine granulated sugar or confectioner's sugar, 1/2 cup of brandy, and 1 bottle of chilled white wine. Cover and let stand for several hours or overnight (some people prefer to remove the woodruff after half an hour). When ready to serve, remove the woodruff (if you haven't already), place a large lump of ice in the punch-bowl, and pour the mixture over the ice. Stir in the remaining 2 bottles of wine and the champagne.
If you have strawberries, float about a cup of them in the bowl for a garnish [we won't have any for another month, but frozen work just fine].
Lusty month of May, indeed!
Weather: Hoar frost on May 1st indicates a good harvest.
If it rains on Philip's and Jacob's day, a fertile year may be expected. [However, the feast of Saints Philip and James has been moved to 3 May, so that we may honor Saint Joseph the Worker today. Perhaps if it rains on both days, we'll have a super harvest!]
Traditions and superstitions:
If you go in swimming on the first morning of May before the sun is up, you will not have any contagious disease during that year.
To become beautiful, wash your face in dew before sunrise on May Day.
If you wash your face with May dew gathered at daybreak, you will have a good complexion throughout the year.
Rolling naked in May Dew will protect you from skin diseases [ahem! but not from the police! If you are going to roll around in the grass, choose a spot where you won't be observed, and watch out for ticks.]
Sniffing May dew (gathered at daybreak) is a cure for vertigo.
If you remove your flannels on the first day of May, you will not take cold [only if you live in Florida and points south]
If you give away fire or light of any kind [and that includes flicking your Bic to light someone's cigarette], you will bring ill luck upon your house.
It was once believed that witches had great power to bewitch cattle (and through them, the butter) on May Eve and May Day:
To ensure good butter and freedom from witches, herbs gathered on May Day should be boiled with some hairs from the cow's tail and preserved in a covered vessel [and kept in the barn, I imagine. These aren't herbs with which you will be cooking].
Washing your cattle with May Dew will preserve them from witches.
Cattle should be slightly singed with lighted straw on May Eve or May Day to keep away evil spirits.
Cattle should be bled on May Day, and the blood dried and burned.
Seems to me that the only evil influences to which cattle were susceptible were from the people trying to protect them.
You may see the initial(s) of your true love, if you strew the hearth with white ashes, and place a snail on them. Watch to see what letter(s) he traces.
If you wish to see who will be the first to be married, gather your friends around a bowl of syllabub (somewhat akin to whipped cream) into which a wedding ring has been dropped. Each person in turn must take a ladle and fish around the bowl (one good stir each) for the ring. The first to find it will be the first to be married.